“The impact of Beijing’s crackdown on the Uyghurs will be felt for generations”
Last week, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute released its latest report about China’s ongoing crackdown on the Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. The report found that the birth rate in Xinjiang dropped dramatically during 2017 and 2019. One of the report’s author, James Leibold, said the result reflects China’s ongoing persecution of the Uyghurs from different aspects and the Uyghurs might feel the impact of the persecution for several generations.
Question: The findings of ASPI’s latest report, which you co-authored, are a continuation of other similar research projects. Do you view the latest findings as re-affirming what other researchers have found or do you think they reveal new aspects of the impact of China’s ongoing crackdown on the ethnic minorities in Xinjiang?
James Leibold: I think we are struggling with the fact that China’s regime of censorship over Xinjiang is intensifying. Researchers and journalists no longer have meaningful access to the region and the United Nations has been blocked from conducting their fact-finding missions. We need to continue to use what resources are available to us to try to put the pieces of a very complex puzzle together, to try to understand this rather significant shift in the policy that began with the arrival of Chen Quanguo.
I think we’ve made massive strides over the last couple of years and it’s really an effort of a whole range of journalists, NGOs, academic researchers, and others to look at different aspects of the crackdown. When we put all the pieces together, what we are seeing is quite unprecedented in the modern history of China. You have to go back to the Cultural Revolution to see such upheaval like this.
I still think there is work to be done. There are many things that we still don’t know, but we are hindered in our ability to access the region and documents. Sources that we had in the report have now been deleted as I looked at it this morning. The efforts of the Chinese government to censor and misinform the public is really intensifying.
Question: You’ve been researching China’s minority policies throughout your academic career. When you look at the numbers in the latest report and compare it to decades of research that you have done, do you view the new findings as alarming?
James Leibold: I think it has to be put in the context of China’s family planning regime, which has a very long history. There is the belief that the CCP can reshape physical nature as well as human society. What we see in the current regime of social re-engineering in Xinjiang fits the wider pattern of efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to reshape China in its own image.
If we look at the crackdown on birth in Xinjiang, this has occurred in Han regions for several decades and what we see now, the efforts in Xinjiang amongst the indigenous communities out of fear that too many births in Xinjiang lead to instability and too many births in Southern Xinjiang will increase the size of the Uyghur community that could result in instability and the potential threat to Chinese sovereignty. There is a deep irony here.
On the one hand, China wants to increase the population out of fear of a demographic crisis but at the same time, it’s cracking down on its indigenous communities in Xinjiang. I’ve been trying to get people to understand that this is a much wider pattern of thought and behavior control as well as efforts to fundamentally rethink how ethnic policy operates in China.
Question: This is not the first time that you have been involved in large-scale research like this with ASPI and the Chinese government has previously reacted strongly to some of the Xinjiang research. When there are these two narratives about Xinjiang, how do you think the international community should make sense of findings like the one presented in the latest report?
James Leibold: I think we have to continue to try to piece the puzzles together about what’s happening in Xinjiang. We need to keep putting pressure on the Chinese government to alter policies and we need to ensure that the international community works together with a shared purpose and a shared voice in order to keep that pressure on.
We also need to remember that China not that long ago had a far more open and lightened approach to ethnic issues as well as many other issues. Under Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zhemin, or Hu Jingtao, China was a very different place. It’s possible that we could see a U-turn at some stage.
What worries me the most is the way in which the whole issue has become so polarized and politicized. It’s almost like there are competing realities on display on Twitter or elsewhere, where facts seem to no longer matter and where empirically formed research, policy-making, and opinions seem to be not held in the same regard as they used to be.
I’m first and foremost a researcher and what I try to do is to use the available evidence to work out what I believe is happening. As I said before, it’s becoming harder to get those materials but even if you do assemble them, people will simply dismiss them. I’m sure that’s what the Chinese government will do with this report.
At the same time, other parts of the international community will praise the report. It seems like this polarization gets wider by the minute, and I’m not really sure how we can resolve that difference. I increasingly see the work that I do as writing the first draft of history. The Xinjiang data project that’s now headed up at ASPI is about documenting so that people will remember what’s happening.
It’s a collaborative effort and there are a lot of great resources out there. I want to read the available evidence and use the skills that I’ve been able to develop over the last four decades and try to make a contribution in that way. I feel like we’ve done that. Whether this will change the Chinese government’s approach or not, I’m frankly quite pessimistic on that front. But we must continue to try.
Question: We’ve been seeing the persecution of Uyghurs coming from all sides and it feels like the impact of these decisions could last much longer. When you look at the findings from this particular project, what does it tell you? Does it paint a bleak future for the Uyghur community?
James Leibold: There is no doubt that it is having a devastating impact. I think it’s important to remember that the impact of this crackdown will be felt for generations by the Uyghurs. Does this mean the community will not be able to regroup and rebound? I think that’s a complicated discussion.
Historical memory is a very powerful thing and communities do have a way to adapt and evolve. If the policy continues, we will see a transformation of the Uyghur people into a community that speaks perfect Mandarin, that is atheistic, that’s modern in the view of the Chinese government, and that lives across China rather than concentrated in one particular area.
The idea is to transform them into the image of the Han male elite majority. It doesn’t mean there will be no diversity, but at least in the short term, there will still be public performances and sanitized Uyghur song and dance. But meaningful identity is surely being eroded. As I said, it could bounce back under certain circumstances and it’s certainly being kept alive in the diaspora community.
The interview was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.